Strumming for Kinesthetic Learning
By Erol Oz
I’m here to challenge some of the ideas surrounding traditional music education. Yes, we should teach how to read music. Yes, we should teach students about Bach, Vivaldi, etc. But there are more ways to reach students.
Here’s my story: As a teenager, I was a heavy metal junkie. I wanted to shred on my hot-rodded Stratocaster through my Marshall stack. And I did. However, my parents put me in lessons with a teacher who studied jazz at Berklee and classical guitar at the University of Denver. This was a bit of a departure from what drew me to the instrument in the first place. But my teacher was open-minded. Our agreement was that as long as I came prepared for our lessons, he didn’t mind that I played music that was not particularly his taste on the side. And I needed that. I needed that personal exploration to fall so deeply in love with making music that I had no choice but to make it my career. But when it came time to start thinking about music school, I realized that there were very few schools that had degrees in commercial music at the time. My avenues to make a living through music were classical guitar or jazz. After I heard Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin and Randy Rhoads–the heavy metal wizard responsible for the shredding on the first two Ozzy Osbourne albums–studied classical guitar at young ages, I was sold. No, I didn’t learn from the Suzuki books. I may have had a relatively unconventional path leading me to study classical guitar in college, and then to continue into graduate school, but that unconventional background is what has shaped my teaching when I started at Manatee School for the Arts, and now the University of South Florida. There are many paths one can take in music. And there are many forks in the road along the way. But having an unusual skillset from a diverse background is often what leads to new musical innovation. Luckily many of my colleagues at F-flat Books and USF understand the value to embracing popular music as a way to reach more students.
A Progressive Approach to Teaching Rhythm: When I played the bari sax in concert band, we often learned rhythms by writing in the numerical counting. Sometimes we would count those rhythms aloud. However, most of the parts for bari sax in the concert band didn’t have a lot of complex rhythms or syncopation. However, lots of popular music uses complex syncopation. Plenty of contemporary ‘art’ music uses complex rhythms, meters, and polyrhythms. The tango music of Astor Piazzolla uses plenty of syncopated accents. So how can we be sure that students are actually transferring these counting exercises into performance practice? Well, practice. And lots of it. And playing the bari sax in the concert band didn’t give me many opportunities to practice these syncopated rhythms. I could have joined the jazz band, but I already planned to audition for guitar.
Here are several key points as to why we should embrace popular music and using guitar and ukulele to teach rhythm:
- Rhythm is perhaps the element of music that we perceive the most, and it is potentially the first musical skill we develop in childhood. Young children start to move to a beat before they start to sing in tune, etc.
- Counting rhythms engages visual learning and auditory learning. Strumming incorporates kinesthetic learning as well.
- Feedback–Students receive more tactile and auditory feedback from strumming.
- Integration of Harmony–Many traditional music classes such as band and orchestra instill a strong foundation for melody and rhythm, but harmony is a bit of a challenge unless students get some experience with chords. The majority of undergraduate college music theory courses focus on harmony. Music theory comes a little more intuitively for someone who has played guitar or piano or an instrument capable of playing accompanying chords.
- Form–Understanding form is often a little easier for those who have had to memorize the structure of a popular song. Many pop music have lots of bridges and interludes beyond the traditional verse–chorus (refrain) structure.
- Strumming is formulaic for the logical learners. We strum down on the beat and up off the beat. Therefore the students feel the difference between playing on the beat and playing syncopations.